Moving to the ‘Dark Side’ in Dark Times

An administrative position, especially during a chaotic period, can give you the opportunity to focus your passion and institutional knowledge in a different and deeper way, Bradley Fuster writes.

August 20, 2020
 
 
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There are few times throughout modern history in which a leadership career in higher education has seemed less appealing than in the current moment. Riding the ambiguous waves of reopening uncertainty with insufficient resources, while in the middle of a second civil rights reckoning, takes a special kind of leader. More so than ever before, effectively steering an institution to the other side of COVID-19 demands leaders that are creative, determined and possess a high tolerance for unsolicited criticism.

Even in the relative stability of pre-pandemic days, I witnessed numerous gifted faculty members become academic administrators and suffer severe psychological distress as they transitioned out of the classroom and into full-time leadership positions. I have coached many wonderful leaders to realize that their talents and passions can equally, if not more so, contribute to the academic enterprise from an administrative, rather than pedagogical, perch. While current conditions might understandably dissuade faculty from moving to the "dark side," I argue it is exactly now that higher education needs its most talented and creative thinkers and doers to consider making a move.

Historically, academic culture often distorts the lens through which some faculty members view administration. That distortion can make potential faculty-to-administration moves even more distressing, as those faculty wrestle with guilt over leaving their discipline while having to simultaneously negotiate other new job pressures. Moreover, higher education’s architecture has additional challenges inherent in its tenure structure, shared governance approach and faculty unionization. Each has the ability to draw bright lines between groups. While these structures definitely have their benefits, they sometimes also help fuel factionalism. I hope to provide some advice, based on my own experience, that helps many talented would-be administrators deal with such challenges and consider leadership in a time of crisis.

My academic discipline is music. I have passionately developed my artistry since I was 8 years old. My parents spent thousands of dollars supporting me with private music lessons, expensive instruments, youth orchestra tours, summer music camps and orchestra festivals. I am proud of the career I had touring, performing and recording with professional orchestras. I am equally proud that I have shared my knowledge and passion with the many music majors whom I was fortunate enough to teach as a music professor.

The reasons that drove my midcareer decision to pivot away from this world merit another entire article. It was extremely personal and a weird mixture of excitement and pain. Leaving the classroom, selling my instruments and quitting the musicians’ union were events that I mourned. Yet I found them necessary in order to completely dedicate myself to my new vocation of academic leadership.

Confounding this decision was the internal and external noise I heard and felt:

Am I really heading over to the dark side?

Am I becoming one of them?

Am I selling out?

Here’s what I learned.

The dark side actually isn’t. Are there some ineffective academic administrators? Yes. Are there also some ineffective professors still populating lecture halls? Of course. As with any enterprise, a continuum of competence exists. However, the pandemic has made administrators (even easier) targets. No matter one’s politics or position on reopening campuses, face coverings, remote instruction, testing, contact tracing or PPE, it is pretty easy to do no right as an administrator in the eyes of onlookers. That’s not to say that all administrators are leading well in times of crisis, but I am confident most are doing the best they can within a fragile structure that was not designed to withstand this level of disruption.

Them versus us. The three N’s of radicalization purport that once a universally misguided belief is presented as fact, it feels “normal, natural and necessary.” I entered my first full-time tenure-track position at the young age of 26, naïve and full of optimism. Rather quickly, I was exposed to systemic institutional cynicism and the familiar entrenched faculty tropes bemoaning poor facilities and equipment, inadequate compensation, ill-prepared students, and other commonly underfunded initiatives. It became clear to me that many faculty members at my institution -- and, frankly, most institutions -- had created a social construct in which “the administration” was the problem. Distrusting and obstructing administrative agendas quickly felt normal, natural and necessary. Admittedly, I became one of those faculty members who perpetuated a them-versus-us paradigm. With faculty morale low on most campuses due to reductions in workforce, decreases in pay and benefits, and increases in workload, COVID-19 has only served to amplify this historical divide.

Us versus us. For various reasons, I remained fascinated with and attracted to leadership. I was fortunate to have many patient mentors by my side as I informed and developed my own experience with higher education administration. Thinking objectively, why would any rational college or university administrator say or do anything that would knowingly make the lives of faculty members worse? The answer is, they wouldn’t. We’re all in this together.

As a senior administrator leading my institution in a time of crisis, I now clearly see why and how some faculty members might take issue with certain administrative decisions. I also see how administrators sometimes have access to additional information that they simply cannot divulge that would help contextualize those decisions for the faculty. And I realize now that the deeply engrained institutional chasm between faculty and administration probably isn’t either side’s fault but simply the product of perpetuating extant distrust between two groups who both deeply love the institution and are trying to do what they believe is best.

Selling out actually isn’t. Should one decide to pursue a full-time higher education leadership position, it often means abandoning, or severely reducing, the relationship with the academic discipline. For many people, it may feel like going through a divorce from a long-standing, on-again/off-again or love-hate relationship. There will be an emotional mixture of doubt, regret, guilt and shame -- of good days and bad days.

After promotion to full professor, I took a look around and realized that many of my professional orchestra musician colleagues -- as well as my faculty colleagues, many of whom had arguably reached the zenith of their professional careers -- were miserable for one reason or another. Transitioning to administration while I was still passionate about teaching, research and service was probably the most ideal moment for me.

The transition from faculty to administration requires you to reframe your sense of professional accomplishment and understand that you are fueling student success from a different vantage point. Instead of flying the airplane, you are designing new airplanes, repairing broken airplanes, controlling air traffic, ensuring safety, building new airports and serving the general welfare of all.

An administrative position, especially amid unstable and chaotic times, can give you the opportunity to focus your passion and institutional knowledge -- along with your classroom, advising, research or service experience -- in a different and deeper way for the betterment of the institution. It can enable you to be creative and curious about a new and different subject matter. Transitioning from a faculty position to academic leadership allows you to, in essence, adopt a second discipline. Although often the price of admission requires retiring or retreating from the first discipline -- at least for a while.

Time has taught me that much of what I loved about being a professional musician was not only the incredible opportunity to teach, perform and record music at a high level, but also the close relationships with colleagues. Yet higher education leadership has also afforded me the opportunity to build and maintain a network of meaningful affiliations with faculty -- as well as with administrators far beyond my discipline and at other nearby institutions. It’s also allowed me to make connections through conferences and professional development opportunities like the American Council on Education’s Fellows program.

We need you. As higher education negotiates the formidable road through the pandemic, talented faculty who are committed to developing their own leadership potential can bring the necessary perspective, social capital and intellect to the important work of shaping the future of an institution, or in some cases, saving it. The continuing success of higher education depends upon passionate and excellent faculty being willing to consider evolving into outstanding leaders and administrators. This transition demands time, emotional energy, curiosity and the willingness and ability to reconcile relationships with their discipline and colleagues.

It is also helpful to think about higher education leadership as its own academic discipline, and in fact it is. Though the familiar duties of teaching, research and service are not quite the same, even through the pandemic, I often observe myself still doing what looks like teaching, what feels like research and what is most definitely service.

Bio

Bradley Fuster is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Keuka College in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

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